Perry debates the value of debates

Rick Perry was the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, right up until he started participating in debates. Soon after, his support evaporated, and the Texas governor has slipped from first to third.

So, if debate performances undermined Perry’s chances, the governor seems to think the absence of debate performances might boost his chances.

A spokesman for Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, raised the possibility on Wednesday that Mr. Perry might not participate in all of the contest’s upcoming debates.

“We will look at each debate individually and then make a decision,” Mark Miner, the spokesman for Mr. Perry, said. He earlier told Politico that the governor will participate in the next debate, in Michigan, but that future ones are not assured.

“I think all the campaigns are expressing frustration right now,” Mr. Miner said. “We said we would do Michigan but the primaries are around the corner and you have to use your time accordingly.”

Perry told Fox News the other night that it was “probably” a mistake agreeing to participate in the debates in the first place.

But in practical terms, what will the new strategy mean? There are 11 more debates — and counting — already scheduled through the end of January. If the nominee is not yet obvious by Feb. 1, it stands to reason there will be many more debates lined up. Indeed, the television networks will be eager to schedule as many as possible, since the ratings for these events tend to be quite good.

Exactly how long does Perry think he can run and hide?

As governor, he found these exercises optional, and chose not to bother. Last year, seeking a third term, Perry simply refused to debate his Democratic challenger, even if it made him look cowardly. The governor took a gamble, and assumed Texas was a “red” enough state that voters would back him anyway. He was right.

But that was in a race in which a conservative populace had to choose between a Republican governor and a Democratic challenger in a GOP-friendly year. In the presidential race, Perry is running against a large Republican field, and GOP voters have plenty of choices. If Perry doesn’t show up, he not only signals his weakness, he runs the risk of being forgotten about.

Besides, I think it’s the wrong diagnosis anyway. Debates in which Perry appeared incoherent have been a problem, but the governor’s support evaporated when the Republican base heard about in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants and the HPV vaccine. The debate performances didn’t help, but they weren’t necessarily the driving factor, either.

Ultimately, though, the question for Perry is straightforward: which makes him look worse? Hiding from the stage or showing up and looking foolish?